The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Sir John Major’s Speech at the Papworth Trust Appeal Dinner – 7 April 2006

The text of Sir John Major’s speech at the Papworth Trust Appeal Dinner, held at New Hall in Cambridge on Friday 7th April 2006.


It is a long time since Mike Bloomfield invited me to this dinner and I am delighted to be here.

Gastronomically, it’s certainly been more enjoyable than dinners I’ve attended elsewhere.

I recall sharing –

Pigs bladders with Helmut Kohl in Badhofstein

Unspeakable part of a sheep with King Abdullah in a tent in the desert

And a dinner in South Korea that would have been more wholesome had it been prepared by Lucrezia Borgia.

There were no such problems this evening.

More enjoyable was dinner with Bill Clinton in which everyone else in the restaurant was from the Secret Service. And an in-flight breakfast of vodka and eggs with Boris Yeltsin. Two eggs, three vodkas.

These are precious memories. Very few of those who are disabled have the chance to live a life which has such moments.

Twenty years ago, I was Minister for the Disabled and saw at close quarters the inability of the State to provide all the help that is needed.

Without charities such as the Papworth Trust many disabled people would live a miserable life.

This evening, we are raising funds for the Saxongate Learning Centre which will be a marvellous resource for the whole area. It will draw the town together. And – far beyond Cambridgeshire – it will be a model of how fully integrated services and facilities can be provided.

It’s an intriguing concept … a learning centre. For people who are disabled, learning often means painful striving to do things most of us take for granted – but which are vital for dignity and self-dependence. We have learned a lot about disabilities in the last twenty years. It has been a process – as learning often is. 2,400 years ago, the great teacher, Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle. Aristotle taught Alexander the Great. It was a process of learning and, through learning, all four of them changed the world.

Plato’s great contribution was to develop the science of – logic. He might have despaired of our modern world?

Is it logical that the richer we become as a nation, the more we rely on private philanthropy to help charities?

Is it logical that the richer the world becomes, the more the overall burden of poverty seems to rise?

Is it logical that – as the world shrinks and we become more inter-dependent – violence and terror rises, too?

I think not. Tonight, gathered here, are people who act to alleviate the miseries of disability. That is wonderful – but on a bigger stage, there is so much more to do.

350 years ago, John Donne wrote: “No man is an island, entire of itself”.

That truism is even more relevant in today’s world.

For in Donne’s age, events from one far corner of the world did not have an impact on another. Today, they do. There is no hiding place.

Nothing is as it was: nothing will be as it is.

Twenty years ago, we lived in a world of two super-powers. The end of Soviet Communism changed the world. If it had not collapsed, I doubt we would have seen the horrors and genocide of Bosnia and Kosovo. Or the second Iraqi War.

Nor would the free market be so dominant or such a target for terrorist groups.

Today, we live in a world that is economically liberal – and yet the free-market is very controversial. But why should that be so when it is geared to promoting wealth and well-being? Why should economic freedom and radical militancy have both grown at the same time?

For two reasons, I think: the mal-distribution of that growing wealth, and because the free market disturbs the absolutism of old faiths. Here – exposed immediately – are the twin roots of terror: fear and hatred.

History is instructive here. When Britain had an Empire, we were universally detested. Hundreds of millions resented our power and wealth.

Even as they paid lip service to our face, they rejoiced if we were discomforted. Today, those same hostile emotions are directed against mature democracies by terrorism.

Sometimes, there is a tendency to think of terrorism as if it were a global conspiracy. Certainly, some groups have widespread tentacles.

Sometimes there is co-operation between terrorist organisations.

But there is no worldwide conspiracy. Mostly, terrorist groups are close-knit, relatively small organisations, with their own perverted causes.

These may overlap but they are not joined together in an over-arching organisation.

But, since the rise of Al Qaeda, there is, however, a layer of peripheral groups who share the same ideology, seek the same ends and use similar tactics.

We must understand what they are about.

Al Qaeda’s objective is the unification of the Islamic community around the world; its purification and the imposition of the most literal translation of strict Sharia Law.

They wish to see the world divided between Islam – and everyone else. It is an isolationist philosophy, wholly out of tune with moderate Islam and the rest of the world.

Their tactics we know: distortion of the Koran, indiscriminate terror; and the call for a Holy War against all who oppose them.

The threat of terrorism is not new: it has been with us since ancient times; but now terror is globalising – led by groups that are secretive, diverse, with their money, men and weapons hidden as effectively as their minds are closed.

Nor is Terrorism targeted only against the West. Think of the bombs in Bali. Or Jerusalem. Or the school siege in Moscow. Or Sarin gas in Tokyo. Or atrocities in Kashmir. The signature of mass-casualty terrorism can be seen worldwide.

Here is – an oddity. Most people find violence abhorrent and yet terrorism has never been short of apologists. Over many years, it has grown bolder and more deadly. But not more successful.

When Spain, Portugal and Greece dumped Fascism – it was not because of terrorism.

When Communism collapsed – it was not because of terrorist pressure.

When Apartheid ended – terrorism played no part in its demise.

Terrorism can claim none of these victories – it exposes frustration but it often entrenches what it wishes to destroy: and – it fails. Gandhi was far more successful in changing minds than Bin Laden will ever be.

Always, the effect of terror is to create chaos. To de-stabilise markets. To interrupt the flow of commerce. To undermine Government by consent and civil order.

Terrorism and democracy are fundamentally opposed. They cannot co-exist. One must defeat the other. If democracy is to survive, terrorism must fall.

Therefore – one question arises: can a war against terror be won at all?

My answer is – Yes, it can.

It will not be a short conflict. But, over time, terror can be beaten and the potency of its threat removed.

So, if democracy can win, how can it do so?

To win, all nations threatened by terrorism need to co-operate. These States must work together to deny terrorists their safe havens, cut off their financing, and stem the flow of recruits. They must deny them their causes. And, to defeat the ideological threat they pose, we must understand the motives that drive them and re-educate the minds of those who have sympathy with them.

We must accept we cannot win by military power alone, but concede that we cannot win without it.

We must ask ourselves – what motivates terrorism? What encourages non-terrorists to tacitly support them? What can we do to make terrorism so totally abhorrent that terrorists are utterly isolated?

The answers to these questions are not always palatable.

In much of the world ideological radicalisation has fed the untruth that the religion of Islam is under attack. Al Qaeda assert this every day.

Radicals use this belief as a recruiting sergeant to fuel their cause. Events such as the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have fed this perception as has the failure to bring the Middle East Peace Process to a successful conclusion.

The Radicals case is crude propaganda, and wrong, but it is effective. To rebut it, democracy must fight for the hearts and minds of those into whose ears radical poison is poured. Words alone will not do: they must accept obligations that illustrate the morality of democracy.

One example stands out. Our world has six billion souls. Of these six billion, one-half live on less than US$ 2 per day, and one-fifth on less than US$ 1 per day. This cannot be acceptable. I daresay no-one here today would hesitate in spending that sum on a cup of morning coffee at Starbucks.

It is hard to imagine the disparity between the life of these three billion people, with the life of someone in richer countries – even if that someone was on the lowest levels of social support. The rich nations do much to help – and have pledged to do more. I welcome that. At present, the rich nations spend US$ 50 billion in total on overseas aid: an enormous sum. But less generous than it seems when you realise that Europe and America spend US$ 350 billion on agricultural subsidies alone. A statistic that is even more bizarre when you realise such subsidies cut away the chance for poor nations to sell their agricultural produce – often their only export – into developed markets.

To put that into context: we spend seven times as much subsidising cheap food for those already well-fed, as the whole world spends on all the needs of those whose bellies are swollen with hunger.

In removing grievances, we cut away the resentment of the “have-nots” for the “haves”. Moreover, as we act, we increase demand, we begin to create tomorrow’s market – and we undercut the message of hate that fuels radicalism.

In the next 25 years, world population will grow from 6 billion to 8 billion.

Of the extra 2 billion, 97% will be in that part of the world that has an income below US $2 per day. This is not sustainable if we wish to sustain a free market in a world free of conflict. Nor is it moral.

But if the world acts early, acts now, acts out of conscience – not only will we foreclose on misery and hardship to come but we will undercut the breeding grounds of terror that, at present, is such a threat to our security and our prosperity.

For in a shrinking world, the problems of others cannot be shrugged aside as someone else’s responsibility.

And the changes – in this shrinking world – are accelerating.

In the late 18th Century the British Prime Minister, William Pitt, was reflecting on Britain’s relationship with America and realised he had not heard from his Ambassador in Washington for a long time. He picked up his pen and wrote to his Foreign Secretary: “If we have not heard from the Ambassador in another year – we should send a note.”

Today, the leisurely world of William Pitt is long gone. Politics – and business – now operate at a frenetic pace.

We have a global economy. The political map is fluid. Each day, technology and communications move forward.

The speed of medical advance is already as bewildering as the demand for medical services in infinite. Yet it will grow: the mapping of the human genome system will lead to an explosion of demand for preventative care and, where this is provided, to an increase in life expectancy.

There is a pattern here in all aspects of our life. Science and technology is accelerating change which already takes place at break-neck speed.

What might this mean for the new century? What scale of change might we see?

Consider this: first, how the pace of change is accelerating ahead of us; and second, the sheer scale of the change behind us.

At the beginning of the 20th century, no-one knew of blood groups, of hormones, of barbiturates. Vacuum cleaners and household detergents still lay in the future. Marie Curie had not discovered radium – nor had Einstein perfected his Theory of Relativity.

There would have been amazement – even disbelief – at the news that Count Zeppelin was designing a machine that would fly. At that time, could anyone have ever imagined that – one day – it would be possible to breakfast in London and lunch in New York?

In 1900, the Europeans were dominant.

The United Kingdom, France and Russia controlled 80% of the world’s surface.

How things have changed.

The Ottoman Empire has gone.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire has gone.

The French Empire has gone.

The British Empire has gone.

The Russian Empire has both come – and gone.

The US is now the most powerful nation in the world with the two most populous nations – China and India – on course to become great economic powers within the next three decades.

The impact of all this is not simply on economics and politics.

Children born today will see the conquest of the stars.

They will live longer, see more, do more, know more than any earlier generation. They will see deserts bloom. See a genetic rebuilding of failing bodies.

Live with technical innovations beyond our present imagination.

It will be a world unrecognisable to their forebears.

In that world, we need to look – in our own way – at how we can help the disabled. That is what we are here for this evening.